“Eight million people without power,” read the headlines as a result of Hurricane Sandy that hit the East Coast on October 29, 2012. In large part this extensive power failure was a result of the grid’s architecture. Our current electrical power system or “grid” is arguably the largest machine made by humankind. The grid is a network of interconnected electrical wires and power systems, and this network is operated in much the same way as it has been operated for the past 100 years. In addition, the “old” grid comprises a one-way path that is based on very little knowledge about what is going on with the consumer, so it is difficult to identify ways to shift power usage. There is, however, an exciting transformation underway, and the importance of this transformation is underscored by the devastation left in the wake of Sandy. Spirae, a company based in Fort Collins, Colo., is creating and proving the technology that could change the way we power urban environments. Spirae pioneered active distribution management techniques to integrate high levels of renewable and distributed energy resources. In other words, Spirae supplies the hardware and software to create “smart” electricity grids. “When we say ‘smart grid,’ we are talking about the set of technologies that will enable this transformation and bring new service opportunities to consumers,” says Sunil Cherian, CEO of Spirae. These technologies enable many resources to work together and react to the electricity grid’s needs. Ultimately, this allows individual elements, such as wind, solar, biomass, electric cars, all to be optimally exploited.
There is a shift happening away from use of large centralized power plants to use of smaller assets of all different types. “Today, electricity can be produced much closer to the point of use. We are moving from a passive distribution network to an active one,” says Cherian. “With new technology, we can operate the electrical power system in more intelligent ways.”
Spirae’s product is a distributed control system that augments a utility’s existing grid management system to dynamically manage large amounts of distributed energy resources. The critical element is that all of these different energy resources must work together, and deliver innovative energy solutions to customers. Spirae is working with the Danish Municipality of Kalundborg, to demonstrate that it is technically and commercially feasible to link electric utility operations, energy services providers and service subscribers (customers) with “grid-responsive” energy services. For Kalundborg, now touted as one of the most promising smart city projects in Europe, there were two primary concerns: (1) is it possible to integrate increasing amounts of wind and other renewable and distributed energy resources while maintaining grid stability; and (2) is it possible to deliver energy services that are responsive to the grid’s operating conditions and limitations. A project of this magnitude required commitment and collaboration. “The main ingredient in smart city Kalundborg is the three-way commitment to intelligent energy solutions from the local authority, residents and the private sector,” according to the article, “The Path To A Smart City Goes Via “Intelligent Energy.” ” [i]
“We started working with Denmark in 2005,” says Cherian, founder of Spirae. “In 2005, Denmark had a big focus on wind and had incorporated close to 25 percent wind on their system. On the other hand, many central plants including coal were shutting down and being replaced by natural gas-fired distributing systems all over the country. Denmark had also invested in combined heat and power systems and planned on incorporating more wind-powered generation onto the system. As big power plants become less and less, the grid operator doesn’t have the necessary tools to deal with distributed generation and intermittent generation,” explains Cherian. This led to a situation where there was plenty of potential power generation but also the potential for failure if not managed properly. Ultimately, it was a question of how to optimize use of local resources.
Uncontrollable Wind Can Be Controlled
The project was dubbed the Cell Controller Pilot Project (CCPP), and Spirae and CCPP successfully demonstrated that uncontrollable wind can be controlled when all generation resources function as an integrated, intelligent power system. A key discovery of the CCPP project was that “coordinated control of local assets such as combined heat and power plants, wind turbines, and load control could mimic the operation of a single large power plant, and therefore provide ancillary services such as power balancing, import/export of active and reactive power, and voltage control at select locations within the
distribution system,” according to the CCPP final report. The report further notes that “in the event of a transmission system emergency, local distribution networks (60 kV and below) could be rapidly isolated from the transmission network (150 kV and above) and operated autonomously using local resources, thereby reducing the impact on consumers and contributing to more rapid recovery from the emergency.” Applying this analysis to an event on the level of Hurricane Sandy, the ability to isolate from the grid lends itself to resiliency in our communities.
According to Cherian, cities, municipalities and communities are taking the lead and developing initiatives to become “smart cities” —such as the FortZED project in Fort Collins which aims to convert downtown Fort Collins and the main campus of Colorado State University into a netzero energy district—a district that generates as much energy as it uses from local resources. Similar to the CCPP project, FortZED requires coordination of a number of different power resources. Spirae provides the software to enable capture of key information about what resources are available, how long these resources are available and how much capacity. This information can be used to optimize these diversified resources and maintain the stability of the system. Spirae is the glue that holds the system together.
Companies like Spirae are transforming the way we power urban environments and enabling synergistic integration of technology. The result is a system composed of a diversity of resources and the ability to isolate portions of the grid to control failure. In other words, Spirae is developing the recipe to build resilient communities. The technology developed more than 100 years ago was clearly not developed to withstand increasingly chaotic weather patterns. Rebuilding is the perfect time to consider using new technology as a defense.
[i] Copenhagen Cleantech Journal, no. 2, 2012.